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Bats & Balls: Gaining an Edge with xFIP

David Regan

David Regan

David Regan is a five-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner, and was named the 2010 Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year.

This week, we'll revisit one of my favorite pitching metrics, xFIP-ERA in an attempt to identify some overvalued and undervalued pitchers. We'll also touch on prospects to determine whether Gregory Polanco's callup this week was your last chance to nab a premium young talent.

xFIP - ERA

I think at this point, particularly if you're a RotoWire subscriber and read our feature articles on a regular basis, you're well aware that ERA is not necessarily an indicator of future performance. We can argue about what the best measurement is (strikeout rate, velocity, xFIP, etc.), but for the purposes of this exercise, I will take the difference between ERA and xFIP to determine whether a pitcher is under or over performing based on those items that he has some element of control over - home runs, strikeouts and walks. To keep it simple:

ERA > xFIP - may mean that a pitcher is underperforming his skillset and therefore might show improvement over the course of the year

ERA < xFIP - may mean that a pitcher is getting lucky on balls in play or is simply due for a decline

Here are the 10 starters with the largest ERA/xFIP disparities in each direction.

ERA > xFIP

PLAYERK/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP GB%HR/FB ERA xFIP xFIP-ERA
Brandon McCarthy, ARI 8.2 1.6 1.4 .336 55.521.4 5.13 2.76 (2.37)
Ricky Nolasco, MIN 6.4 2.5 1.5 .340 42.713.4 5.70 4.12 (1.58)
Kevin Correia, MIN 5.0 1.9 1.1 .343 41.58.0 6.11 4.63 (1.48)
Tim Lincecum, SF 8.9 4.1 1.3 .333 45.716.7 4.97 3.62 (1.35)
David Price, TB 10.0 0.9 1.2 .332 43.112.3 3.97 2.68 (1.29)
Eric Stults, SD 4.7 1.8 1.8 .323 42.415.9 5.68 4.39 (1.29)
Homer Bailey, CIN 8.0 2.9 1.3 .328 52.715.9 4.60 3.49 (1.11)
Edwin Jackson, CHC 8.8 3.7 0.7 .341 40.89.0 4.70 3.67 (1.03)
Wade Miley, ARI 7.8 2.6 1.4 .287 47.116.7 4.57 3.54 (1.03)
Franklin Morales, COL 5.9 3.6 1.8 .299 42.917.1 5.64 4.61 (1.03)


Brandon McCarthy -
McCarthy is 1-8 with a 5.13 ERA, so if you're buying a turnaround based on the above data, he's likely available in your league. For a pitcher who generates a ton of ground balls, has excellent control and misses bats, McCarthy is the epitome of an underachiever. Perhaps the HR/FB rate normalizes (average is 11 percent), but by the time that happens (if it does), he'll likely be starting at another shoulder injury. I just can't recommend him.

Ricky Nolasco -
Not having Nolasco on this list would be like going to a Men Without Hats concert and not hearing "The Safety Dance." It's expected. Nolasco has historically underperformed his FIP in most years, so given how many times I've been burned here, I can't recommend picking him up. Maybe you'll get lucky, but that 1.5 HR/9 rate makes him prone to some ugly outings.

Kevin Correia -
Correia has never missed all that many bats, but he'll have some good games if he's locating his pitches well on the outer half. I'd roll the dice in AL-only leagues, but not against good offenses.

Tim Lincecum -
Lincecum has seen the average velocity on his fastball drop off the cliff over the years, from 94.1 mph in his first Cy Young season (2008) to just 89.7 mph this year. The 8.9 K/9 and solid offense around him makes Lincecum worth owning in most formats, but the lower velocity and worsening control has led to some subpar results in recent seasons. He's a No. 4 starter these days, perhaps the most overpaid one at that.

David Price -
Price's K/9 and BB/9 rates are Cy Young worthy, but a .332 BABIP this year versus a .285 career mark is having an impact on his ERA. Factor in a HR rate that has spiked from last year's 0.77 and you have an ERA near 4.00. Price is too talented for that number not to come down, and quickly.



Eric Stults -
Stults is on here due to his low strikeout rate and inflated HR/9, but this is often what you get with soft-tossing left-handers. If he's painting the corners a la Tom Glavine, Stults can toss seven shutout innings with three strikeouts. If he's missing, we could see a three-inning, six-run stint due to his propensity for surrendering home runs. Stults even has a 6.28 ERA at home, so good luck guessing when those solid outings will come.

Homer Bailey -
It's been a small step back for Bailey this year, but 15.9-percent HR/FB rate should come down, and his overall metrics are very good, just not quite as good as last year. That said, he's 4-0 with a 3.00 ERA and 24:7 K:BB in last 27 innings covering his four most recent starts.

Edwin Jackson -
From 2.8 to 3.0 to this year's 3.7, Jackson's BB/9 is going in the wrong direction. He's actually been lucky in the sense that his HR/FB rate is low and his flyball rate is high. That can be a potential recipe for future disaster. He still misses enough bats to make the ERA reasonable, but if you've an owner of him like I am, he's a frustrating guy to manage.

Wade Miley -
Miley has his K/9 up from 6.5 to 7.8 year over year, and his walks are also down slightly, but the ERA is up over a full run over 2013's 3.55. The primary culprit has been a 16.7-percent HR/FB rate, as highlighted in a recent Miley-like start on June 1:

6 IP, 8 H, 4 ER, 0 BB, 9 K and FOUR home runs

More flyballs and a higher rate going over the outfield wall has resulted in an uptick in Miley's 2014 ERA. I see an ERA slightly below 4.00 the rest of the way.

Franklin Morales -
If you're hoping for anything from Morales, don't.

ERA < xFIP

PLAYERK/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP GB%HR/FB ERA xFIP xFIP-ERA
Alfredo Simon, Reds 5.5 2.3 1.3 .238 46.513.9 3.15 4.20 1.05
Shelby Miller, Cardinals 6.1 3.9 1.2 .254 42.011.0 3.59 4.65 1.06
Andrew Cashner, Padres 7.4 2.6 0.3 .272 55.94.5 2.13 3.21 1.08
Jon Niese, Mets 6.3 2.4 0.6 .272 47.06.8 2.68 3.80 1.12
Scott Kazmir, Athletics 7.7 1.9 0.6 .259 49.36.3 2.20 3.41 1.21
Tim Hudson, Giants 6.0 1.2 0.4 .255 58.26.7 1.97 3.25 1.28
Tom Koehler, Marlins 6.0 4.0 1.0 .245 47.710.7 3.33 4.61 1.28
Julio Teheran, Braves 7.3 2.1 1.0 .215 38.98.9 1.89 3.86 1.97
Mark Buehrle, Blue Jays 5.3 2.6 0.3 .285 44.63.3 2.04 4.18 2.14
Chris Young, Mariners 4.4 4.0 1.3 .205 25.88.0 3.42 5.89 2.47


Alfredo Simon -
Simon has made a surprisingly successful transition from being an excellent reliever to a solid starting pitcher. His strikeout rate has taken the expected hit, but his walks are also down to help compensate. The .238 BABIP probably is not sustainable, but as long as you're not expecting the strikeouts to take a big step forward, Simon should still be able to maintain a 4.00 ERA the rest of the way.

Shelby Miller -
We saw Miller's upside in his last start, as he tossed a three-hit shutout against Edwin Encarnacion and the Blue Jays. Miller's ratios have gone the wrong way this year:

K/9: 8.8 to 6.1
BB/9: 3.0 to 3.9

Miller has a 1.9 BB/9 over his last five starts, so with his above average stuff, his best years are ahead of him. I think he's going to eventually break out and become a top-20 starting pitcher, but is that necessarily this year? Probably not, but I expect a solid finish for the 23-year-old.

Andrew Cashner -
Cashner has flashed All-Star ability when healthy, but his owners' fingers are crossed each time he takes the bump. I'd say his stuff is better than a 7.4 K/9, but when hitters do make contact, Cashner has been able to generate a ton of ground balls, resulting in just two home runs in 63.1 innings. He should be started in all formats, but I'm still skeptical that he has a 200-inning season ahead of him.

Jon Niese -
Along with his velocity, Niese's K/9 rate has dipped in each of the last three years, though he's maintained a FIP in the 3.5-3.9 range due to his excellent control and ability to limit home runs. When I look at Niese, I see Mark Buehrle. A soft-tossing lefty with the ability to survive due to the aforementioned control and GB ability. Expect and ERA in the 3.60-3.80 range the rest of the way.

Scott Kazmir -
Kazmir has been fantastic lately, posting a 1.21 ERA and 25:4 K:BB in 22.1 innings over his last three starts. It's a great comeback story, and at this point, we have to simply figure that he's going to be well above average the rest of the way.

Tim Hudson -
This won't quite last, but Hudson generates a ton of ground balls and walks very few. As not many of those ground balls are finding holes (see BABIP), Hudson is off to perhaps the best start of his career. Of course, unless one is a juiced-up Roger Clemens, 38-year-old pitchers don't make this sort of improvement this late in their careers. And considering he allowed three runs on nine hits over five innings in his last start, the regression to the mean may have already commenced. Still, this isn't a complete fluke, and if Hudson can post an ERA in the 3.50 range the rest of the way, he has a shot at his first sub-3.00 ERA since 2010.

Tom Koehler -
With a 6.88 ERA in his last three starts, the regression is in full force. Koehler isn't a pitcher I would be comfortable using now.

Julio Teheran -
Teheran has a 1.23 ERA in his last four starts. The low GB% and BABIP indicate an ERA correction is coming, but Teheran is still one of the game's best young pitchers. In his last six starts, Teheran has fanned 40 in 40.2 innings, so the K's are trending up.

Mark Buehrle -
Great start, but raise your hand if you think he'll post an ERA anywhere near 2.00 the rest of the way. Yeah, same here.

Chris Young -
It's tough to top Safeco Field as a location for a flyball pitcher, but eventually, Young's 33:30 K:BB in 68.1 innings is going to result in his downfall. Of course, an injury could easily come first.

The Next Wave of Prospects

We see this every year. Around June 1, per the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement, players who are recalled from the minors would have passed the "Super Two" arbitration deadline, saving teams potentially millions of dollars over the next six-plus years, particularly if the prospect matures into a major league All-Star. Prospects called up this month and for the rest of the year are not eligible for free agency until after the 2020 season and will be paid near the league minimum through the 2017 season unless they sign a long-term extension. We've already the likes of George Springer, Oscar Taveras, Jon Singleton and, most recently, Gregory Polanco generating fierce bidding wars in the few fantasy leagues in which they were not already rostered. So who's left that could potentially make an impact? Here are a few names to keep an eye on.

Call is a Lock

Joc Pederson (OF-LAD) -
16 homers, 15 steals and an OPS exceeding 1.000. Yeah it's the PCL, but Pederson is ready for the next test. It's possible he's already the second-best outfielder in the organization behind Yasiel Puig, but when is he going to get a shot? Over/under: July 1.

Mookie Betts (2B/OF-BOS) -
Betts has a .961 OPS and 22 steals, making him a potential fantasy beast. He's obviously blocked at second base, thus the recent time in the outfield. We should see him in Boston this summer.

Andrew Heaney (SP-MIA) -
Since the promotion to Triple-A, Heaney has a 27:2 K:BB in 23 innings. Any day now Miami ...

Dylan Bundy (SP-BAL) -
Bundy is expected to make his first minor league rehab start Sunday. Expect the assignment to stretch well into July, but we could see him in Baltimore sometime in August. By 2015, he should be a rotation fixture.

Jonathan Gray (SP-COL) -
Juan Nicasio was touched for 10 runs in 3.2 innings Tuesday, Eddie Butler and Jordan Lyles are hurt, and the Rockies have really no hope outside of Gray. All Gray did Tuesday was toss five no-hit innings with seven strikeouts for Triple-A Tulsa. He's ready.

Alex Meyer (SP-MIN) -
The 24-year-old is about ready to contribute. With six shutout innings and eight strikeouts in his last start, Meyer lowered his ERA to 3.30 to go with an impressive 10.8 K/9. Looking over the Minnesota rotation, it won't be hard to find room for Meyer once he's deemed "ready."

High Impact Potential, but a 2015 Callup:

Kris Bryant (3B-CHC) -
He's destroying Double-A Southern League pitching, and it seems likely he'll do the same in Triple-A once the inevitable promotion comes through. Still, the Cubs may prefer to delay his free agency a year and call him up around this time next year.

Byron Buxton (OF-MIN) -
Just 20 at-bats due to a nagging wrist injury, putting him more on track for a mid-2015 callup.

Addison Russell (SS-OAK) -
Probably a September callup at best given hamstring has limited him to 14 at-bats all year.

Francisco Lindor (SS-CLE) -
His glove is more advanced than his bat, but 17 steals in 60 games with a .369 OBP for a 20 year-old in Double-A is impressive indeed.

Rymer Liriano (OF-SD) -
20/20 potential and he's made a nice recovery from Tommy John. Probably a late-season callup with a chance at competing for a job next spring.

Carlos Rodon (SP-CHW) -
Just drafted No. 3 overall last week, but recall that Chris Sale was in a big league uniform in August the year he was drafted. Rodon is polished enough to do the same, but perhaps taking the Sale route and opening in the bullpen with an eye toward a 2015 rotation spot.

A.J. Cole (SP-WAS) -
Not too many guys have been both traded by and for by the same organization in a 13-month period, but that was Cole. Back with the team that drafted him in the fourth round in 2010, Cole is on track for a 2015 debut.

Marco Gonzales (SP-STL) -
1.94 ERA in 11 starts. With just five starts above A-ball, he's a long shot for a pre-September callup, but keep this name in mind in keeper formats.

Disappointing 2014, but Don't Sleep on Them:

Archie Bradley (SP-ARI) -
Should return in late-June from elbow injury, and I would not expect to see him in Arizona before next year as a result.

Javier Baez (SS-CHC) -
.364 in first seven games this month as he looks to overcome an awful start. A 2014 callup is still possible, but will need to kill the ball with consistency over the next couple months.

Maikel Franco (3B-PHI) -
Terrible April, solid May and now .116 in first 10 games this month. Just may not happen for him this year after all the spring hype.

C.J. Edwards (SP-CHC) -
Just four starts due to a sore shoulder, but MRIs were negative, so hopefully the Cubs are just exercising caution. Edwards has No. 2 starter upside, but team won't rush him, making him more of a 2015 fantasy option.

Anyone I missed? Bring up a name in the comments and I'll provide my thoughts.